Former TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson retired Monday as one of the greatest players in San Diego Chargers history and an NFL legend.
Tomlinson, who finished his 11-year NFL career with the Chargers and New York Jets as the league's fifth all-time leading rusher, is a certain Hall of Famer.
But those who knew him best say his abilities on the field were only surpassed by the type of person he was off it.
That's the first thing Texas State coach Dennis Franchione talked about when asked to reflect on Tomlinson's retirement.
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"He will certainly go down as one of the greatest of all time," said Franchione, who was TCU's head coach from 1998-2000. "The wonderful thing about that is he did all that with class and integrity. I'm really proud of him and his accomplishments. He is as good a person as he was a player."
Franchione receives a lot of credit for helping TCU become the football program it is today.
The Frogs were 1-10 before he arrived in 1998. He led them to two conference titles and their first 10-win season in 60 years in 2000. Franchione said Tomlinson's emergence as a Heisman Trophy-contending tailback during that time was just as important to TCU's rise.
"I don't know if you can ever see this far ahead," Franchione said. "He matured and grew. There was no doubt he was going to be a great running back. By the time he was a senior and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, it was obvious what kind of player he was. He was certainly a catalyst [for TCU's turnaround]. He was the face of the program on the national level."
Legendary running back Emmitt Smith served as an inspiration while Tomlinson grew up a Cowboys fans in Waco, and more so when he went on to have an outstanding college career at TCU.
Tomlinson had his sights set on Smith's all-time rushing record.
He didn't quite make it, but what he accomplished was enough to make him a certain Hall of Famer while earning the respect and admiration of his idol.
"I have known LaDainian since he was 13 years old," Smith said. "When you know someone when they are very young, and you watch that person grow into being a man and one of the very best to ever play the game, it is inspirational for me personally.
"He was a pleasure to watch play football. He did it with pride and passion, and he was a true professional from his very first day in the NFL. I am extremely honored to know that I have had a positive influence on him. What he accomplished in his career gives me great pride."
Tomlinson did not get the rushing title, and he didn't get a coveted Super Bowl ring. Still, Smith said Tomlinson leaves the game with dignity and respect that few enjoy.
"LaDainian has had a tremendous impact on the league, not only as a player but also as a person with great character, and it shows by the respect his peers have for him and how well known he is," Smith said.
"He accomplished many great things as a player, but I don't know of any player recently who has left the game with as much admiration and respect from his peers as LT enjoys. And that might be an athlete's most cherished accomplishment."
"He would have liked to have gotten his team to the Super Bowl," Franchione said. "I don't think anybody can speak anything but highly to what he has done."
Former Chargers offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence Shelmon, who also coached Smith with the Cowboys from 1998-2001, is often asked to compare the two legendary runners.
He said both had "a passion, will and burning desire to be the best."
Shelmon coached Tomlinson in his prime while he had Smith later in his career. He said Tomlinson was the most versatile and explosive running back he had ever been around.
"He could take it to the house at any time," Shelmon said. "He could catch the ball out of the backfield. He could pick up the blitz. Emmitt could make people miss, but he was more of a grinder. He wore you down. He imposed his will on you."
In the end, Shelmon also said Tomlinson's character surpassed his abilities on the field.
"He's a great person," Shelmon said. "He did a lot of things people didn't know about it. He has a good heart. He got that from his mom."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.